BioShock: The Big Daddies Are Coming

BioShock concept art from 2004In late 2004 Ken Levine of Irrational Games, a games development company formed by refugees from Looking Glass Studios, announced the team’s latest project: BioShock, in many ways a spiritual sequel to Looking Glass’s cult System Shock and Irrational’s own System Shock 2. Fast forward almost three years and we now know much more about this title, which has become one of the most hotly anticipated games of 2007, and has already begun to garner significant critical acclaim. This is an impressive achievement in a year glutted with high quality titles, particularly given that BioShock is, at heart, a first person shooter that teeters between action-adventure and survival horror.

In BioShock gamers adopt the role of Jack, who in 1960 barely survives a plane crash over the Atlantic. A lighthouse situated near the sinking aircraft proves to be the entry point to an underwater metropolis named Rapture. The bathysphere journey down to the bottom of the ocean includes an animated tour of Rapture’s conception and construction, providing a rapid introduction to the game concept’s background and ideological underpinning. Built in 1946 by the Objectivist Andrew Ryan, Rapture was intended as a haven in which the best and brightest humanity had to offer could excel by the “sweat of their own brow”.

RapturePredictably, something went wrong, and now the player – as Jack – finds themselves flung into a dying city ravaged by conflict. Broken men and women are roaming the corridors, some still wearing the shell of their humanity, and others yet more strange.

August 12th saw the Xbox Live release of the BioShock demo, which proved to be so popular that many subscribers found their downloads crawling along at near dial-up speeds. I was lucky: I managed to get hold of the demo and experience my first playthrough the same evening. It is on this, as well as the information drip-fed to us through various other sources, that this article is based.

There’s a lot to be excited about with BioShock. For example, the glorious art-deco design of Rapture itself is evident from the first moment you enter the lighthouse, and is nothing less than stunning when displayed before you during your bathysphere voyage. The exemplary design is not merely limited to the game’s setting; for example, the now-familiar Big Daddy and Little Sisterfigures of the Big Daddies and Little Sisters really are as strange and wonderful as might have been expected. The latter – appearing for all the world like infant girls in cotton dresses – sing childish songs to themselves as they harvest the substance known as Adam from corpses. Their wordless protectors, the Big Daddies, move with terrifying speed and ferocity to defend their charges, and it’s quite clear that these monstrously large entities, concealed behind faceless diving helmets, will prove a significant challenge to the player should conflict occur.

At the heart of any FPS is combat and in this regard BioShock does not disappoint. The demo is clearly generous with the player, offering a plethora of weaponry and ammunition early on as well as a range of the more unusual plasmid powers. Plasmids – one of the sources of Rapture’s present misfortunes – allow users to access powers like telekinesis, pyrokinesis, cryokinesis, and doubtless many other kineses as well. It’s these plasmids that throw diversity and environmental opportunism into the mix. An early example is the use of an electrical discharge to stun an enemy, allowing the coup de grace to be delivered with a gaming staple, the wrench. And, in the flooded areas of Rapture, an ability to generate electricity has other obvious uses.

Gameplay footage and trailers demonstrate the use of just a few of the dozens of plasmids available in the game. Notably, telekinesis allows the player to catch grenades and return them to sender; a combination of tele- and pyrokinesis allows them to fling burning objects at enemies, setting them aflame. A particularly cruel example is to set an attacker aflame, and wait for them to run screaming to the nearest pool of water with your electrical ability ready to spark…

Rapture also boasts a remarkably advanced security system for something built in the 1940s, but with superpowers also doing the rounds this can be handwaved away. If security cameras are not evaded the player may find themselves the target of helicopter security bots. These can be circumvented by a similarly anachronistic method; they can be hacked (in a rather endearing minigame that simulates the fluidic circuitry controlling these systems). Security apparatus can thus be used to the player’s advantage.

An angry-looking Big DaddyKen Levine, BioShock’s chief designer, describes these options as providing “emergent gameplay”. Dependent on the range of abilities with which they are equipped, and the environment in which they are forced to fight, the choices made will differ widely from player to player. The result is a game that does not play the same way twice, and in which banal responses to scripted AI can be circumvented. Whilst it remains to be seen how true this will be – what we’ve seen is limited in nature and is not even particularly unique to BioShock – the demo is certainly promising in this regard.

Also impressive are the game’s sound effects, and particularly the dialogue from the Splicers – the Adam/plasmid-maddened men and women who prowl Rapture. In one memorable example, a female Splicer is huddled over a pram, cooing and exorting baby to wake up. Baby isn’t warm any more. Why won’t Baby smile? On the player’s approach, the Splicer attacks, screeching “Baby and me! Baby and me!” Once despatched, a look in the pram reveals that there is no baby, but rather a pistol.

Little SisterThe larger story of the game is only hinted at in the demo. Andrew Ryan, Rapture’s architect, is cast as a noble and world-weary figure during your bathysphere initiation. Towards the close of the demo, he presents a quite different face. By contrast Atlas, the radio contact who helps you survive your first moments in Rapture, pleads for your aid in helping his family escape the city, but there’s the underlying suspicion that he there is more to him than this simple motive – a suspicion enhanced by some of the scattered exchanges overhead during your initial descent.

The sum result of these first experiences in the world of BioShock was that I felt vindicated in my early pre-order, one of very few I’ve ever made. The game itself is released in Europe on Thursday; I hope to be playing it soon after. Until I’ve had an opportunity to immerse myself in the worlds of Rapture and BioShock, I won’t say any more, but if you want to read more about BioShock there’s a handy list of links below.

(BioShock is released on August 23rd for PC and Xbox 360.)

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